Karnataka polls: SC should examine credibility of democratic institutions and the money power corrupting them

The larger issue that the Supreme Court would do well to examine is not confined to Karnataka. It pertains to whether governors in various states have acted in an arbitrary manner to appoint chief ministers after general elections in different states.

Different methods have been employed in different states. In some, such as Goa and Manipur, a post-poll alliance was appointed. In others, such as Karnataka now, the single largest party has been handed power, without reference to whether or not it has a majority in the new House. The result in each case is that the ruling party at the Centre gets power in one more state.

So, the basic question is whether all these decisions have been motivated by political bias.

Another essential question is the extent to which political mandates are being compromised by money and muscle power. Perhaps the real issue in this regard is not so much that these factors operate in politics, but the shamelessness with which this might now be going on.

 Karnataka polls: SC should examine credibility of democratic institutions and the money power corrupting them

Representational image. Reuters

The country cannot afford the sort of chaos that might ensue from a loss of public confidence in the institutions of democracy. There has already been far too much erosion in public confidence with regard to the universally acknowledged pillars of democracy.

What is particularly worrying is that the current crisis in Karnataka has led to questions being raised about the legitimacy of governments as far afield as Bihar and the Northeast.

Credibility of institutions

If it were not for this pattern of what seems suspiciously like loaded dice which keep coming up in favour of the party ruling at the Centre in state after state, the Karnataka governor’s decision would not be necessarily objectionable.

The Narasimha Rao-led government at the Centre ruled for two-and-a-half years without a house majority. That government had the support of only its 226 members. That made it by far the largest party in the house, but still well short of the majority mark, which was 274 in a full House.

That government survived without much tension for so long simply because it actually had 'the confidence of the House', which is what the Constitution actually requires.

As an insightful politician once said, this constitutional requirement is more about chemistry than arithmetic.

President Venkataraman had correctly read the mood of the various major parties in that House in the traumatic weeks following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and the country’s humiliating debt crisis.

For two-and-a-half years, the BJP repeatedly found one reason or the other to walk out of the house before a vote on the president’s address. And the Left would walk out before the budget was voted. The government won each vote, since each walk-out reduced the majority mark for that vote.

No party brought a motion of no confidence until after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Thereafter, there was much public discussion about how the backing of JMM MPs had been obtained when the Rao government finally struggled against trenchant opposition.

Indeed, it is ironic that Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad is leading the Congress’ efforts at government formation in Karnataka. He was the parliamentary affairs minister who skillfully saw the Narasimha Rao government through all the required parliamentary votes during those two-and-a-half years.

The way that tricky political situation was managed is a testament to the importance of the credibility of constitutional institutions such as the president.

No one questioned the conduct of President Venkataraman, either when he appointed VP Singh — who had the outside support of the BJP and the Left against the single largest party (the Congress) — or when he appointed Narasimha Rao, who led the single largest party in the new House. The difference was that both those prime ministers had 'the confidence of the house' when he was appointed.

Poll expenditure

While these questions about propriety are being raised, it would be good if the Supreme Court were to also consider the extent to which money power and other sorts of lure are being used during elections in different parts of the country.

There are estimates that several thousand crore rupees have been used to bribe voters in Karnataka. This not only undermines the democratic system, it indicates that citizens in very large numbers have become cynical about the efficacy of the electoral system. This does not augur well at all.

Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan had cracked the whip on poll expenditure and other sorts of unfair means from 1991. Other CECs such as My JM Lyngdoh had continued in that vein.
Over the past several years, money and muscle power in elections appear to be running amok once again. The issue of ensuring clean elections has fallen to the margins. All the major parties, including several regional parties, are responsible.

This is intricately linked with the sort of horse-trading that is feared in Karnataka. When each candidate and party has to spend vast amounts to buy victory, they are bound to seek the quickest and easiest ways to recoup that outlay.

To some extent, that seems now to have become at least as important an objective of forming a government than serving the people’s interests efficiently. If profit is such a major motive, horse-trading is surely bound to be expected — from both buyers and sellers of House votes.

The Supreme Court might consider ordering systematic methods to ensure greater transparency and accountability. But ultimately, it is up to citizens at large to consider very seriously how to strengthen the systems that give citizens leverage in a democracy.​

Updated Date: May 18, 2018 20:38:32 IST